I read Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels when I was in my early teens and before I had watched more than a couple of the film series that was inspired by the books. Thus I had read Thunderball before I watched either of the two film versions of it (the second film version, which like the first starred Sean Connery as 007, was Never Say Never Again). (1) I was disappointed, therefore, to discover that my favourite part of the book had been omitted from both films. In the story’s primary plotline Bond is sent to recover two atomic bombs that had been stolen by Ernst Stavro Blofeld and his terrorist organization SPECTRE. If you have seen either of the films you will recall that before even receiving this assignment, Bond had stumbled across a clue while he was hanging out at a health spa, breaking the rules and seducing the nurses.
What is not mentioned in either of the movies is the reason why Bond was at the spa to begin with. In the novel, however, this is spelled out at great length in a hilarious secondary plot that leads into the main story. Bond has just undergone his annual physical examination and, while the report indicates he is in prime condition, M, director of the British Secret Service is not satisfied. He, having just come back from a health retreat with all the fanaticism of a new convert, summons Bond into his office and gives him a lecture about eating right and his smoking and drinking habits and then sends him away for a mandatory stay at the health spa. The cab driver who takes him there comments on how odd it is for someone of Bond’s age and health to be going to a place that caters to a clientele of old men with bad backs. While Bond seems to utterly disregard the rules of the spa during his stay, he too comes away from the spa as a convert. He quits drinking, cuts back on his smoking, even switching to a lighter, filtered brand of cigarette, and subsists on a diet of yogurt, Energen rolls and other health foods. He is now so full of pep and energy that he drives his housekeeper, his secretary, and everyone else around him crazy. This all comes to an end when the blackmail message from Blofield arrives. Bond is summoned into an emergency meeting where M, who has already reverted back to his old habits offers him a smoke, and replies with a “Humpf” when Bond says “Thanks sir. I’m trying to give it up”. Having been made aware of the crisis and given his assignment, he returns home and orders his housekeeper to cook him up a real breakfast of bacon and eggs and hot buttered toast (“not wholemeal”), and is subsequently back to normal.
I have always read this as an excellent satire of health fanaticism, although it is apparently inspired by an actual clinic that Fleming himself had attended. Eight years before the publication of Thunderball, C. S. Lewis had mocked health fanatics in the first paragraph of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third of the Narnia books by suggesting that the reason the character of Eustace Scrubb was initially so disagreeable was because of the progressive, forward thinking, advanced views of his parents, who were among other things, teetotalers, non-smokers, and vegetarians.
These books appeared shortly after World War II which, if those who believe we are living in a “post-modern” era are correct, is the prime candidate for the event that signaled the end of the Modern Age. If the Modern Age is thought of as a project that had as its goal the replacement of Medieval Christendom with secular, democratic, liberal nation-states then this project was more or less completed around the time of the war. This is directly related to the fact that health fanaticism was becoming such a nuisance that it became a major object of satire.
Orthodox Christianity does not include elaborate dietary laws, of the sort that Judaism and Islam have, but rather takes a libertarian approach to the matter of food and drink. The development of this approach can be seen in the New Testament beginning with Christ’s statement that it is that which comes out of the heart and not that which enters the mouth that defiles a man, to St. Peter’s vision in which the animals the Old Testament forbade the Jews to eat are declared clean, to the ruling of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, to St. Paul’s explanation of Christian liberty in his epistles. What the Christian church enjoins upon its members is something much more difficult than merely following a checklist of what you can and cannot eat and drink. Building upon an ethical foundation lain in both the New Testament and classical philosophy it encourages the cultivation of virtues, habits of good behavior that are typically characterized by the traits of balance and moderation. The Anglican catechism, for example, in the section which explains the Christian understanding of the Ten Commandments “according to their spirit and purpose as our Lord teaches in the Gospel” includes as part of our duty to our neighbour the following “To keep my body in temperance, soberness, and chastity”. Temperance, as used here and in the New Testament where it is described as a fruit of the Spirit, means self-control and moderation.
The cultivation of virtue and character is the work of a lifetime and a path that lies between two ever present temptations. One of these is the temptation to give up and give oneself over to habits of excess. The other is the temptation to substitute a list of rules and to keep adding to it until you are buried under it. These temptations are never succumbed to in isolation from each other. Thus, when the North American descendants of the Puritans substituted a prohibition against the consumption of alcohol for Christianity’s traditional exhortation to sobriety a perverse culture of drunkenness began to develop.
Likewise, as the post-Christian Western world began to develop extremely unhealthy eating habits, such as the consumption of large amounts of fast food, pre-packed processed food, and junk food the health nuts began to crawl out of the woodworks, each with his own long list of what you should and should not eat. These lists frequently contradict each other - one health nut will prohibit fat, another will tell you to eat lots of fat and avoid carbohydrates, one will tell you to eat your food raw, another to eat it cooked, etc. What they have in common is that none of them recommend anything as simple as a balanced diet, and indeed one of the oldest versions, a pre-Christian pagan doctrine that was resurrected in the nineteenth century under the new name of vegetarianism for the new scientific era, prohibits the consumption of one of the major food groups entirely. Its most extreme adherents, vegans, prohibit the consumption of two of the major food groups while self-righteously proclaiming their moral superiority over everybody else.
Health nuts often believe that they have some special knowledge, that the medical establishment is conspiring to suppress and keep from the general public, which provides the secret to better health and a longer life. This resembles the doctrine of gnosis from which the Gnostics, the early enemies of apostolic authority and orthodoxy, derived their name. This too points to the Modern Age’s revolt against Christendom and Christian orthodoxy as the genesis of these ideas. Eric Voegelin argued that the very concept of a “Modern Age” had its origins in Gnostic eschatology and it is significant that he identified Puritanism, the extreme form of English Protestantism in which many of these lifestyle prohibitionist movements have their roots, as a form of Gnosticism.
As the Modern Age progressed and the Western world moved further away from orthodox Christendom, more and more of these legalistic health and lifestyle movements popped up. The nineteenth century saw the rise of the teetotal movement, vegetarianism, and sects that teach that Christians are required to eat kosher. It is not at all surprising that with the near completion of the secularization of the West by the end of World War II, the number of such movements exploded. I think the response of Ian Fleming and C. S. Lewis to these sorts of people – mockery, derision, and satire – is the right one, at least so long as they are merely an annoying, nagging, nuisance. When they try to enlist the government, which in the interest of reducing the cost of socialized medicine often seems inclined to listen to them, to compel us by law to conform to their wishes, it is a different matter and we should actively combat this sort of health tyranny. Otherwise, let us attempt to cultivate the virtues of self-control, moderation, and balance, which will do far more for our health than to follow the latest health fad, peddled by a bunch of fruits and nuts.
(1) Interestingly, Fleming had originally written Thunderball as a screenplay and adapted it into the novel, which was then in turn re-adapted into the movie versions.